The application of criminal liability in the event of a fatal accident at work is a daily risk well known to employers, particularly in the context of the use of work equipment or machines by their employees.

Held almost automatically, it regularly fuels litigation.

It is well known that, in application of the Labour Code, the scope of the employer’s responsibility is not only vast but also severe: the employer must provide his employees with equipment that does not expose them to a risk of damage to their health or safety, regardless of the “CE” mark affixed to the machine.

In other words, he remains responsible, even if the intuitive logic would have it that he is not at fault if the machine has a safety design defect.

However, this liability should not overshadow the manufacturer’s liability, which is much less frequently involved.

A recent case handled by the firm offers a reassuring insight into the assessment of the level of responsibility shared by the employer and the manufacturer.

The accident in question was dramatic: while working on a glass cutting machine to carry out a repair, the maintenance worker, an experienced employee duly trained by the employer, was fatally injured.

The criminal investigation revealed, among other things, that the machine did not comply with the regulations in force and that the manufacturer’s instructions on maintenance operations were inadequate.

Like almost 95% of the machines sold in Europe, the machine in question had been “CE” certified by the manufacturer and declared compliant with the safety regulations in force.

It had also been assembled and installed by the manufacturer himself. However, the employer had not inspected the machine by an independent body.

What about the responsibilities of the two defendants, the manufacturer and the employer, as determined by the criminal court?

Both were charged with manslaughter.

Joining the argument raised by the employer, the criminal court distanced itself from a well established jurisprudence aiming at holding him as the main responsible.

With rigour and discernment, the criminal court held that the non-conformity of the machine through the fault of the manufacturer had directly contributed to the death of the employee.

The court therefore imposed a fine of €50,000 on the manufacturer and €15,000 on the employer.

This final decision is an opportunity to remind employers of

  • The importance of a formalised and rigorous policy of training, information and awareness-raising for employees in terms of health and safety and the use of work equipment, which is essential to guarantee the protection of their employees and to defend themselves in the event of litigation.
  • And, although optional but which we strongly recommend, the importance of having work equipment and machines checked by an independent body before they are made available to employees, independently of the certifications and declarations of conformity put forward by the manufacturer.

Emilie Meridjen, partner in labour law, Pierre Feltz, associate

About Sekri Valentin Zerrouk

Sekri Valentin Zerrouk (SVZ) is an independent firm of more than 50 lawyers that advises multinational companies, leading investment funds, small and medium-sized companies and entrepreneurs on the development of their business activities and on their acquisitions, disposals and restructuring operations in France and abroad.

With more than 400 transactions completed over the last 10 years, Sekri Valentin Zerrouk (SVZ) is today one of the most recognized firms in the transactional field.

The 12 partners are : Franck Sekri, Pierre-Emmanuel Chevalier, Géraud de Franclieu, Emmanuelle Vicidomini, Antoine Haï and Olivier Legrand (Mergers & Acquisitions, Private Equity, Financing), Emeline Peltier (Real Estate), Yamina Zerrouk (Public Business Law, Urban Planning and Real Estate), Jérôme Assouline and Thomas Verdeil (Tax Law), Emilie Meridjen (Employment Law) and Anne Dumas-L’Hoir (Business Litigation).